Wanting to pitch every game quickly turned to hoping that I wasn’t in the starting line-up. Could I ever feel confident in the circle again? Would pitching ever be the same? Each day, I questioned which version of myself would show up. Will I have control of my arm today or will my hopes of pitching well quickly turn to dread? All of a sudden, what once felt commonplace to me felt so foreign. My arm felt like jello as it went into a whip (the last half of the arm circle). My release felt forced and stiff, and I had to hope and pray that the ball might land somewhere near the strike zone.
I often returned to my apartment, crying in my car after games. How could this happen? In the previous season, I had pitched the best in my life, and I felt confident beyond belief. Nothing could stop me. Then, after one game, and two hit batters against Georgia Southern, everything changed.
This was my reality in my senior season, the season I had hopes of helping my team return to the World Series, the season I hoped would be my best yet. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. Looking from the outside, you might not have realized anything was wrong. My stats were still good, and I pitched often. Watching certain games, you may have even seen a strong performance in the circle because there were still a few great games thrown in the mix. That was the hardest part, there were games of success, of feeling completely myself, and there were games where I had no idea where the ball would land once it left my hand. One of the great games I remember from that season was driven by anger and frustration, two things I was not much accustomed to in my collegiate career.
Don’t get me wrong, I experienced plenty of frustration in my bullpens and in games early in my college years, but many opponents knew me as the pitcher who smiled through the good and the bad. That season, I had to learn to pitch with a different kind of concentration and a different motivation.
If I had the answer, I’d surely write about it in hopes that it would help every player ever affected by the yips, but the truth is, I don’t have the answers. Honestly, I don’t think anyone does because every player’s experience with the yips is individualized. I still question what it was that brought it about. I have a few ideas, but I don’t think I’ll ever know what the true cause was, or what specific moments lead up to it, but let’s start with pressure.
I have always put unneeded pressure on myself. Even in high school, if I had twelve strikeouts, I would question why I didn’t have fifteen. It seems so silly now, but it’s the truth. No one had higher expectations of me than, well, me. Now, there were certainly times where I didn’t believe in myself as much as I should have. Confidence is an interesting thing. You could have the highest expectations of yourself, and sometimes you could even meet those expectations but still, somehow you don't feel good enough. This was part of my problem.
Let’s rewind to May of 2014, I was named ASA/USA National Player of the Year, and I couldn’t believe it! In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought about being in the same category as the previous nominees, let alone winners.
Do you want to know what one of the first things I felt was after the excitement and emotion wore off? I felt like I still had to prove that I was good enough. Think about that, we were at the World Series for the first time in ten years, I had already won the award. Yet somehow, I still felt like I didn’t belong. I still felt that I had to show people I deserved the award I was just handed.
After winning, of course, I opened up social media. Along with many congratulations and positivity, I also found criticism. “She doesn’t deserve that award after losing 17-2 against Michigan in game one of super regionals.” “She’s over-rated.” “Sierra Romero should have won.” The negative comments continued, and I gave into them. I agreed, I wasn’t as good as the other nominees, and I didn’t deserve this award. Once again, the pressure built, but this time it happened because I was trying to prove to other people, outsiders, that I belonged.
My thoughts turned into reality in our World Series games. I only made it a few innings against both Oregon and Baylor, and we went two and barbeque. That might be where my yips problems all started. The pressure to succeed, driven by my personal perception, remained a constant burden. I proved to myself that I wasn’t good enough, but I was going to change that. My mission for my senior season was to help guide us back to the World Series.
Fast forward to January 2015. I was invited to Team USA try-outs after not making the team in the summer of 2014. During one session of the try-out, the pitchers were asked to throw live to bunters. I threw every single ball into the dirt. I could not make an adjustment, and my arm had a jello-like feeling each time I released the ball. A coach asked me, “haven’t you thrown BP before, don’t you do this at practice?” I had never had a problem throwing to bunters before, but each time the ball bounced into the dirt, my embarrassment multiplied. I felt fine for the remainder of tryouts, and I thought I pitched well, but I was devastated when I didn’t make the team, and I couldn’t help but return to the embarrassment I felt in that moment.
Later on, I learned that the yips are at times caused by a traumatic event. Would I really consider that traumatic? No, but the embarrassment was real. When thinking of how this process started, I always return to that moment, when I had the first sense that something was off.
After our home opener during my senior season, the same problem started to show up in games. I couldn't throw a strike with my fastball/ dropball. I would throw the ball in the dirt, over the catchers head, I hit batters, and I even threw the ball behind a hitter on a few occasions.
With the help of my coaches, we went to work combatting my yips. We reached out to specialists, and sports psychologists as well as former players who battled similar circumstances. I even spoke with a sports psychologist that specialized in the Emotional Freedom Technique involving tapping to alleviate stress, but I couldn’t buy into it. Although I wanted to work through the problem, it didn’t feel like that was the right route for me. It wasn’t until I started opening up to teammates and others about what I was feeling, that pitching started to feel less like work and more like fun again.
Once I admitted to myself and to my teammates that something was off, I no longer felt the need to hide. That's when things started to lighten up. I spoke with Eileen Canney, a former pitcher at Northwestern who once experienced the yips throwing overhand. I felt the biggest sense of relief after speaking with someone who shared a similar experience. Knowing that I wasn't alone meant the world to me, and I believe it might be one of the toughest parts of the yips. You can't explain the feeling to anyone who hasn't experienced it. It's not the same as simply walking batters or missing your spots, it's a complete loss of control. It's feeling helpless in a sport that once felt like home.
Throughout the remainder of the season, things were far from perfect, but they did get better. After starting the first game of our Regional opener, I was pulled after the 4th inning or so after walking multiple batters. After that, I didn't pitch again until game three of our Super Regional against Tennessee.
Sitting on the bench was far different than competing in the circle, but I'm thankful I got to experience moments of huge growth during the regionals and super regionals for my battery mate, Jessica Burroughs. Eventually, I got my chance to pitch in game three of our super regional.
I'm not sure if it was the weight of possibly pitching the final game of my career as a Seminole, or knowing my team needed a strong performance in the circle to advance, but I finally found some normalcy in the circle. As the game wore on, my arm felt less like jello and more natural. I was confident in my pitches and knew exactly what I wanted to throw. We lost the game 2-1, and I was devastated that our season was over. I would never pitch again in a Florida State jersey, but I finally felt like myself in the circle, and I knew there was more softball in my future.
If you asked me to change the circumstances, to go back and redo my senior year without this speed bump, I'm not sure if I would. Half of me still wonders what could have been had I thrown normally and naturally during my senior year. Would my collegiate career have ended differently? Would I have performed better in the NPF?
I'll be honest, I don't think I ever got back the exact same confidence in the circle that I once had, but I don't think I'd choose to go back if I could. I learned so much about myself and my identity through my struggles. Sharing my story with others who've experienced something similar is so special, and as I mentioned before, a shared experience can make all the difference. I'm not done sharing, and I know there are far more players that I can help in the future. Most importantly, I hope I can encourage others to share their stories and know that perfection is not the goal. Be okay with 98% perfect in whatever you do. Searching for that last 2% might be what's getting in your way.